Thoughts from Tom

Thoughts from Tom

Anyone who tells you with confidence what is going to happen next is lying, guessing, or blissfully ignorant.

My favorite statistic from reporting after the Trump election was how few predictions of his victory there were during the general election. One list found 11 correct public predictors, including an evidently well-known Chinese monkey. The most famous public prognosticator on the list? The creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip.

While almost everyone now remembers themselves as being prophetic and all-knowing back then, they’re wrong. And it’s a fair bet that wisdom is just as wrong today.

Even apparently scientific information can no longer be considered immutable fact.

For instance in psychology—a field where studies are sometimes cited in support of philanthropic approaches—The New York Times reported “a painstaking, years-long effort to reproduce 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals has found that more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested.”  It’s true in the harder sciences too. In 2015, the editor-in-chief of the Lancet, one of the best peer-reviewed journals in the world, concluded that “much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.”

How to make a strategy in this environment?

Here are three insights about information—and mis-information—we’ve found useful when helping philanthropic clients prepare for “what’s next?” in this uncertain era.

1. Dealing with Information Gaps: Internally

Inside philanthropies there may be a tendency to compromise about information—to accept that many different senior leaders will have different theories of the case.  It is easier not to streamline research, and to assume 100 flowers blooming is best. But it is worth recalling the dangers of compromise and consensus here.

There is a wonderful plaque at the International Spy Museum in Washington that reads:

Could We Have Stopped Pearl Harbor? President Roosevelt did not learn of Japan’s plans to attack Pearl Harbor until it was too late. This was partly the result of clashing between the Army and Navy over who would monitor diplomatic messages from Japan. Finally they compromised: they would alternate even- and odd-numbered days. As a result of this inefficient system, communications broke down and valuable information about Japan’s intentions slipped through the cracks.

Any leader can sympathize with a beleaguered cabinet secretary or president who had accepted this compromise: “Let them both do it, who wants to choose between the Army and Navy?” Philanthropies may have almost as strong internal factions! But the downside to this is an unaffordable lack of clarity. And ultimately, you’re almost guaranteed to miss important insights.

One lesson is to devote sufficient energy and resources to information-gathering. For instance, one idea lies in strengthening the role of communications departments within foundations. Enabling these departments to become information gatherers helps them to provide accurate incoming information internally as well as to distribute it. Some organizations are doing this or alternative structures, and it is important to streamline information-gathering in some way.

We’ve been excited to work on an information-sharing experiment created by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The challenge was to look across the hundreds of cities around the globe that BP helps support. How to find ideas and innovations other partners would want to hear about, how to share that in language that is accessible, and how to do so in a way that is useful for stakeholders throughout the foundation, no matter their focus of work. As we note later in our updates section, the Bloomberg Cities Content Unit—which is housed here at the firm, is staffed by journalists and researchers, and producing product directly for BP—has been a success. The team regularly conducts research and writes stories that are widely read and shared and help uplift especially-promising practices.

Another tactic we’ve found especially helpful is something Pixar founder Ed Catmull recommends in his book Creativity, Inc.: When we’re about two-thirds of the way through a project, we ask experienced team members from outside that project to review the direction of the on-going work. The key is for the outside reviewers to be smart but humble in their suggestions, and for the recipients of the advice to be open and not defensive. As Catmull found in his work at Pixar, we see how a set of fresh eyes can be both the perfect cure for being “in a rut” and providing a new perspective.

In this time of uncertainty, there is no substitute for fashioning new systems for a broad flow of information, careful analysis of that information, and then streamlined decision-making for how to respond to that information. When you never know what’s going to happen externally, it’s always a good idea to make your internal communication and decisions as tight as possible.

2. Dealing with Information Gaps: Journalism

At a macro level, the failure to predict the rise of Trump is a failure of information.

A successful democracy must have excellent means of communicating across its population, making sure important information is available to all.

If it took so many by surprise that millions of people would vote for Trump, and support policies that on their face seem regressive and poorly supported by evidence, we need a better understanding of what fellow citizens are thinking, the information they are getting, and how persuasive the messages actually are.

A recent study of ours highlighted a major problem in the information ecosystem—the opioid epidemic became a “crisis” when the issue became political. Between 2000 and 2016, more than 600,000 Americans died as result of an opioid addiction. More people died of drug overdoses in 2016—three-fourths of which were opioid related—than died in the entirety of the Vietnam War. Clearly, this has been an ongoing crisis for some time. Yet, despite this, The New York Times and The Washington Post, two of the largest news sources in our country, reported around 60 stories mentioning the terms “opioid crisis” or “opioid epidemic” prior to 2016. Once the story became part of the campaign narrative and an overall political issue, things changed. In 2016 alone, the papers printed well over 300 such stories.

This example is a microcosm of an important challenge. In a world of inequality and information bubbles, how can we make sure that the issues that impact some—or, in the case of opioids, too many—are heard by all? And in a world where for-profit journalism may not have an incentive to cover these problems, how can we ensure they’re sufficiently researched?

Philanthropies’ interest in supporting and improving local journalism is one answer. So too is stronger attention to topical journalism. Kaiser Health News has created a news bureau that almost every major paper and radio outlet in the country uses—dramatically boosting coverage of health news across the country. And ProPublica has provided a much-needed shot in the arm for investigative journalism. No one knew for sure these experiments would work, but they have.

Following this lead, we are incubating a nonprofit news bureau to improve coverage of issues impacting poor and vulnerable people. When we looked at the ten states with the highest rates of poverty—and, mind you, 20% of all Americans live below the poverty line—we couldn’t find one newspaper in any of those states with a reporter dedicated to the topic. In 2012, 16% of Americans lived in poverty, but only 0.2% of coverage in 50 major news outlets focused on poverty between 2007 and 2012.

We are excited that our own Vice President Bill Nichols—founding Managing Editor of Politico and veteran of journalism in Kentucky and Mississippi—is leading the charge for this new nonprofit news venture and is lining up partnerships with journalism schools, major newspaper chains, and talented locally based reporters and freelancers to cover this beat and improve poverty and inequality coverage for all. This work, which grows out of our partnership with Spotlight on Poverty, is one of the ways we will begin to fill the gap between what people hear about every day and the narrative about poverty in this country.

3. Work Collectively to Achieve More, and Check Your Facts

In previous eras, large foundations and successful philanthropists could assume that going it alone was a reasonable course. The institution or individual might have enough money, credibility, and expertise to impact the social problem they sought to improve. That’s almost never the case today. The symptoms of today’s largest problems are too large and complex and the means of change they require are too varied. This must become the age of collective response.

Foundations and altruistic investors don’t have a great track record at collaborative action. While the number of associations, work groups, and coalitions is high, there’s a lot of work to be done if we’re to get beyond information sharing and convenings, and move into real action.

It’s understandable that most collaborative efforts don’t work well; institutions and their leaders have different goals, views, boards of directors, and audiences.

But we have found some factors that help make successful collaborations more likely:

First, the reality that going it alone probably will result in failure has become more obvious. One can’t say “things are working fine the way they are” in almost any policy area, and the result is a new willingness to hear and work with others.

Second, new tools, techniques, and partners have improved cooperative work. After a cooperative project we supported this winter, a staff member reported: “After we built trust, partners wanted more, then we shared information and planning and people wanted more, then we pitched each other projects and people put in money. New money.” At the end of the day, all participants felt that this was a win-win.

The combination of legacy organizations and new philanthropies might sound challenging, but it’s actually mutually beneficial for this decade’s effective joint giving. We find much of our work is now helping connect the Coasts, Midwest, North, and South as topics and regions find collaboration to be a fresh source of useful work.